A Thing I Wrote in Last Night’s Workshop

From the prompt, “A child falling through the air”
November 5, 2017

The thing about seeing a child falling through the air is that you can really only see it in a dream or in slow motion in a movie.
Picture a child falling through the air and reflect upon how we are all children falling through the air. We are all in motion, a motion not of our own making, we are all being pulled toward something we do not want to strike but must inevitably strike, and it will not be pretty when we strike this thing we are headed to, and we do not have any say in the matter, and it is also possible that as the universe expands and accelerates so we too, in our inexorable falling out of control, are falling at ever greater speed toward some end we would not wish on ourselves or anyone else, and this ought to cause us great alarm if we thought about it a lot, but meantime it is quite easy to sit on a couch in a quiet room in a small town in Italy and type into a MacBook Pro, with one’s guitar sitting there at one’s feet, a nice guitar, but a guitar which also like everything else is hurtling through space powered by a force that we of course have no control over.
My novel.
Kid falling through the air. My novel. Same thing. Out of control, beyond all power to stop, headed for a messy concussive end, nothing I can do about it. My kid self. Could be. What of it? Who wants to know?
Kevin Costner in Tin Cup goes to see Rene Russo his golf student who is a psychotherapist and he sits on the couch and tells her he’s in love with her and she tries to keep it professional and calls her own therapist to talk about it and I’m thinking Tin Cup is a good movie if you like falling in love with your therapist and doomed Quixotic quest type movies which I do.
Kid falling through the air. Frozen now, got that image in my head, nothing to do about it, can’t stop shit from happening. Like that baby falling through the air, nothing we can do, we got no control, we got nothing, not even a fire department with nets, it’s all happening too fast. All we can do is accept it. Accept that tornado. Accept that blue sky. Accept that sunset, that lady bug, that skullcap, that immigrant. That immigrant I give two euros to every time I see him. Something about crossing water in a boat, in a what’s the word for it, what a shit brain I’ve ended up with, like a surly shopkeeper who won’t show you what you want to see, you know it’s there but he’s just not interested in showing it to you so you go Zephyr, no, Zebra, no, what is the name for that inflatable boat those immigrants came over from Libya on, that Prosper the napkin peddler came over on, Zodiac, that’s it, just like the killer in San Francisco. Zodiac.
Baby falling through the air. Immigrant from Nigeria crossing the Mediterranean in a Zodiac. Me falling through the air with this novel in my hand. I can feel the wind. Everything is accelerating. At the same time I know exactly what I’m doing, because it’s a performance, just like that baby falling through the air, seems so natural, like he’s not even acting, seems so real like it’s actually happening.

——————————

I, too, dislike “craft”

I just read this Alif Batuman piece in n+1 from a few years back in which I found a kinship reading of “craft.” So let me get something off my chest, counterproductive and humiliating as it may be:
Craft is awful. I hate craft!
Instead of standing out there in the hot sun polishing and polishing your doomed anachronistic prose beauty why not instead, today! unleash the wild craftless being within, that incoherent and frightening voice that keeps whispering criminal truths to your inner ear and let it come forth in all its terrible beauty and find its footing on its own, in a process of natural growth? Why push it, mold it, craft it, polish it like a little soldier to line up in uniform with all the other little soldiers of bland literature? Why? when it is a miracle as it is?
I love Amherst Writers and Artists workshops because they make possible a powerful and dignified emergence of the inchoate soul thing, this pure personal voice from the deep well of common humanity. Craft. Fuck craft. Do we humans need craft? No, it needs us. Craft demands that we shape our beings into product. I hate craft.
And yet I have spent the last 30 years practicing and ever-more-elegant craft, worshiping at the altar of “craft,” guiding my boat on a steady course of grammar and diction and usage and coherence … and why? When in my secret and true being I am nothing like the crafted representation of myself that I so earnestly slave over! Why? Because I have also needed to be employed! I have learned and practiced the craft of column-writing and copy-editing and line editing and developmental editing and I have learned the craft of novel writing because I want to be in the room, I want to survive, I want to get paid! I have learned plot and dialog and setting because I want to get into the room where the smart people are enjoying each other. I want their comforts! I want their pedigrees! I am a slave to my own sick, empty need for cultural approbation!
Yet it is true: I hate all of these things. My pure voice rails at these things. It resists. It resists the slightest hint of awkward accommodation or knuckling under. It resists the boring, the routine, the necessary. It resists quotidian requirements because its whole reason for emerging is to escape the quotidian.
This bursting, sparkling, desperate inner being looking for escape and expression must contend with the need to pay the rent (pay the rant?) by doing things that require craft: Journalism, copy-editing, consulting, teaching, workshop leading. And yet at heart it is not about craft. It is about mystery.
Not to mislead: Yes, in AWA workshops we do talk about craft. Yes, it is true ina quotidian sense you can’t go anywhere without craft; it is like air in the tires. But more important we talk about vision and personal truth. For who is going to stop you on the road and congratulate you for having adequate air in your tires?

Indeed in any honest workshop we must talk about craft but I would rather talk about finding the clear water. I would rather talk about finding the central strange inner being that needs voice, that resists easy assimilation, that elbows its way into the room and roars and farts and laughs at us as we slavishly attempt to craft it into something comprehensible. I would rather talk about the incomprehensible. I would rather worship at the feet of this central strange inner being that rightly resists the demands of “craft.”

Fuck craft. I hate “craft.”

OK. I’m done now. I’ll unlock the door and you can leave.

Advice for Writers: 10 Fun Things to do with that nasty inner critic that is trying to murder you

10) Rudely talk over her.

9) Ignore her and when she doesn’t go away keep ignoring her until nightfall.

8) Listen to her and look for possible kernels of truth in what she says.

7) Regard her with mute compassion as a split-off part of the self.

6) Get used to what she’s saying and tune her out like a bad radio.

5) Pause in your writing until she has had her full say and then continue like nothing happened.

4) Tell her to go fuck herself and remember that she can’t hit you.

3) Write down everything she says and give it to your most evil character.

2) Find the strength in her vitriol and turn it on an enemy.

1) Make writing in spite of it your sweetest revenge.

Letter to a friend, with a poem at the end

Dear …

I thought of you just now. I am sitting in this renovated 13th-century Italian convent between Rome and Florence, a short walk up from the train station, and your face  drifted into view. There were a lot of people here for ten days but they all left on the train today. I suppose suddenly being alone was one reason I thought of you. There had been little time to really think. Now I am alone.

I wanted to tell you some things, just being truthful, not wanting anything specific or immediate from you, but not wanting to offend you either with my bald frankness, which I realize has sometimes seemed uncivilized or cruel. As you may know, I was raised by people who spoke sharply to each other as a rule, and to us kids, with the understanding that sharp words were intellectual love and honesty. We spoke to each other with such words and it was not seen as cruelty or even bad manners. It was a point of pride. We knew what we meant.

But my wife has taught me many things in the 20-odd years we have been married. I have come to see how being too honest too quickly can seem cruel. In the spirit of that honesty, though, I will say up front that I do want something from you. Of course we all want things from each other all the time. But sometimes wanting something can cast doubt on the sincerity of what we are saying: Why are you telling me this now? You must want something from me.

Let me do this in my way. I just want to be honest, more honest than I would be if we were face to face. I want to say that I thought of you and believe it or not I felt gratitude. The word “gratitude” is in trouble these days from reckless overuse. It hardly means anything. There is even a restaurant near where I live called “Cafe Gratitude.” But I do want to say I am grateful, meaning conscious of having received much from you.

It is hot here in Castiglion Fiorentino today, hotter than we expected it to be in June. Another workshop starts in two days. People will begin arriving tomorrow. So I have only a little time. This lack of time may be one reason I got to thinking about all the people, like you, whom I’ve been able to meet and write with over the last eight years. You know, we always say in these workshops, “Let’s reflect back what we remember, what sticks with us.” I remember many things about you but some of those things have blended into a composite picture.

Here is something I wrote in the workshop yesterday, on the last day, which I thought I would send to you, which in a personal way sums up where I’m at, what it’s like to be me today. I share this because I have seen, over the years, what happens when people keep coming to these workshops. We go deeper and we get better at being able to capture a moment, where we’re at.

We’re not all big amazing genius type writers and I don’t give a damn about that, frankly. I feel that writing in this way, in a group, has given my writing something else, a home separate from the world of publication. Writing that is published has one kind of home, a big, public home where many shoppers come and go, and people can pick it up and make judgments about it, or dismiss it or do whatever they want with it. Here, though, in the group, it is like we are writing in someone’s home, and everyone is more attuned to the personal implications of each piece, and how we are affected by what is said and not said.

So I have the world that I write for publicly, and this world, where I write things and share them immediately, like just-baked biscuits. They get consumed fresh and that is that and we move on. That’s what I give a damn about: the feeling of having a home for my creative practice.

There are probably reasons that I am more comfortable sharing in a group than publishing, or at least as comfortable, and maybe we will talk about them at another time. But for now, I wanted to share with you this, a just-written piece, not agonized over, not polished but fresh and perhaps revealing in ways that I am not aware of, but which I don’t mind … while I have a moment, before the next nine-day workshop begins:

 

Is this a turning point?
Am I at a turning point?
How the hell would I know?
I know my history.

I remember running as a kind of change.
The only way I knew to change was to run.
Every word seems full of other meanings.
Are we in the dark or have we found a fertile garden?
Everything is ripe with more meaning than is wanted.

I know that in the past I turned and ran. Rant.
Plots have turning points. Plots are also graves.
The turning point. Remember that movie? It was
About ballet. Oh well. A plot is a grave and a
Turn is a spin and a point is an infinitesimal idea.

I learned that in geometry. Are we getting off the subject?
Welcome to the stream I dip my toe in.

Wood smoke. Bird cries. This endless thing.
Looking for a turning point, a radius. I wish I
could be witty. Is this a turning point? I have always
run. Now I try to pivot.

So I say to the therapist that I later fired,
I hate my house. He says, you hate your house?
He didn’t say anything about the house as metaphor.

Can I take a different road? Can I live in Italy?
What I came to San Francisco for now is gone.

I’m thinking about a wire transfer. Is that part of the turning?
I love the words that things are made of: wire, and transfer,
The things that money are made of, the keystrokes, the clatter,
the random number generator and who tracks, who sees, the
random numbers generated? This intrigues me as I wonder
If I am turning.

Could I simplify? Wood smoke like visiting Grandma Ann.

Now all these feelings start to come up. Why do we say come up
And not arrive, or fall down? Why do they come up? Are they
Being held down? I guess so. Duh. That’s how we do it, that’s our
Metier, our special Nordic genius for drinking and shutting up.

Shutting up and shutting down the
things that would come up or out; ever
think of that? We shut up but there is an object too that is then imprisoned.
=================

And then I’m sure there is more. But what I wanted to share with you was that. And I said I wanted something and yes, I do. I want these workshops, when we come back to San Francisco, to be big and full of joy. I want you to come. I want you to make time in your life for these workshops, so you will share these things with me. I want them to be big, like celebrations. I want you to feel free to dig deep and be respected. I want the house to be full of your spirit once again.

On not taking pictures of extravagantly beautiful things, or Florence: Day 3

Is it the restraint of love? Is it reverence? Amid the effervescent joy of buildings that look like music; the muscular formality of a 50-foot-high gate on an ancient wall; the fleeting intoxication of wafting jasmine: Why, exactly, amid these things, do I feel the contrary impulses to stop and snap an iPhoto yet  not snap an iPhoto?

It’s reverence is what it is, no? Reverential surrender so deep snapping a photo would be like naming a nameless God or stealing a soul.

You just plain want the beauty of Florence and that’s enough. Forget the illusion that it can be taken home in a doggy bag. Just want to be here among the Hard Rock Cafe and New York City T-shirts worn by Italians that make sense when worn by Italians. Just want to be here in the shadows of the Italianate style. Just want to stand in the shadow of a medieval gate and imagine its closing in an evening.

Outside our window at the Pensione Crocini a bone-colored awning shimmers in the breeze through ancient wavy glass, looking like nothing so much as a pixellated screen momentarily frozen: emblem of colliding worlds.

OK and lemme say this, too, vis a vis distilling rules from beauty: three stories is the right number of stories for a building and its windows. Three three three three three. All up and down the Arno, buildings face the river and they all have three stories: It’s a river of architectural rules that could be spelled out like this: If you have a river, put some buildings along it. Make the buildings similar enough that there is harmony on the river, yet different enough that there is variation. Color them in shades of earthy amber, sandstone, mustard and salmon; place clay tiles on the roofs; make pale bone and white awnings that ruffle in the breeze off the river. In the distance place a tower with a crenelated wall at the top from which cannons might be shot. Put the whole thing in early spring and make the temperature between 68 and 74 degrees F. Put puffy white cumulus clouds in a blue sky and add the sound of children playing and Vespas whizzing over the Ponte Vecchio.

Tomorrow: to Le Santucce to meet folks and for three weeks spend time dreaming aloud.

p.s. I didn’t take any pictures for the aforementioned reasons i.e. some kind of scrupulosity born of profound reverence. Tomorrow however before we leave it may be different. I said to Norma on our walk today that I’m not taking pictures because you’re just going to have to take my word for it: We were here, it was beautiful beyond all imaginings and beyond all iPhoto renderings and we will leave it behind tomorrow but it will be here for you later, should you come, any time at all, until the inevitable catastrophe of time erases it all but we’ll be gone then too, all of us, won’t we?

In Florence. Italianate facades. Espresso on Magenta and Corso Italia and a boy with a harmonica

Kids are beautiful in cities. They ain’t been ground up yet. There’s harmonicas. After grueling San Francisco-Paris-Florence flight we ride the tiny Pensione Crocini elevator to the tall windows on the courtyard, wash, nap, then espresso at the cafe and luxuriating in the beautiful visual rhythm of the Italianate style, the beautiful rhythm of spring on the Arno, which is rushing past the American Consulate now with the heavy spring rains (spotty snow still on the Alps as we flew from Paris), art students in retro ’80s T-shirts and Deloitte employees in white shirts and black ties on motos, and the carabarini with their carbines guarding the embassy down Corso Italia a block from the Arno, golden buildings in blue light, our tiny cage elevator with the seat where the operator used to sit, our courtyard with the magnolia tree in flower, the salmon-colored apartment block sprouting satellite antennas and bedsheets drying in the warm May air and laundry and awnings and the ubiquitous shutters. A city like a painting, pretty in its particulars, well composed, holding together, yielding up its treasure as long as one cares to keep looking, flowing past on bicycles and Maseratis and scooters. Three euros for two espressos at a red metal table under an awning in the breeze off the river. High walls. High fashion. Mysteries behind towering doors.

Saturday we meet Janet Shepard and Joya Cory and her husband Richard here at the Crocini and Sunday we take the train south from Florence to Castiglion Fiorentino and start the first of two nine-day writing workshops at the Le Santucce residence, looking forward to seeing our hosts Alfeo and Miranda and Luisella and Luca .

Caring for the writing self

I have learned a lot in the last seven years about caring for the writing self and the creative soul. Some of the things I have learned have helped other people, too.

Doing the Amherst Writers and Artists method has become a way of life. Many people I have met while doing this have become dear friends whose occasional appearances are now cherished events in the week.

The role of teacher is one I take reluctantly. I never liked teachers much; I was kind of rebellious I guess, and independent, resistant to being led. Yet I believe fervently in the effectiveness of people coming together to write and read aloud in a structured way. The part of being a teacher that I take reluctantly is the authority part, the part that implies that you should do things my way.

What I have to impart is is a way of being. That is what I share.

Many of us have been conditioned in childhood to denigrate our creative selves. I was lucky not to have this conditioning from my parents. My parents valued my creative spirit, so I am not damaged in that way, and I can therefore share with others a fresh delight in creative exploration.

Like everyone else, I do have a shadow side related to my creative work. But it mainly comes out when I cannot be as free and creative as I was meant to be.

The AWA workshop is the ideal setting for me to help others reach their creative potential. One thing I know from long experience is that artistic success and accomplishment take unexpected forms and involve unexpected difficulties. One aspect of creative endeavor we can control is the regularity and quality of our practice. We cannot control our level of genius or our talent but we can control our level of commitment, and we can consciously acquire knowledge about techniques and markets. We can choose what books to read. We can read books that acquaint us with current forms and techniques. We can to some extent control the amount of time we give to the endeavor, and we can find ways to build it into our lives. We can make conscious sacrifices that give more time to creative work.

This is why I keep doing the AWA method, because it is one conscious choice I can make to continually feed the creative spirit. Each time we come together to write, it strengthens us a little more. However uncertain the future may appear, however distant we may feel from having a completed book and an agent and a publishing deal and a movie option and syndication and residuals and book tours and awards and wide publication and fame, however distant these things may seem, we can always make day-to-day choices that keep our creative practice alive. We can always keep writing. And we can enjoy it.

That is why I keep providing these workshops and urge people to attend. Because the creative spark, the spirit, needs to be fed.

Another part of the creative journey is the practical realm: gaining recognition, acceptance, publication, monetary rewards, etc. Learning about this is like learning about any set of institutions and practices; it is a little like learning about how to get into a school, or how to get a job. There is an application process. So we have to ask, What are the requirements? Who are these people who work in publishing for a living and how does one, in essence, get a job with them? When we publish something we enter into a kind of employment. We don’t like to think of creative endeavors in this way, perhaps, but when we offer our work for sale we are economic actors. It may be called “cultural” activity but it is in fact economic. At the fringes of the literary economy are magazines supported by grants of money from funding organizations, universities, philanthropists and so forth, which take only minimal ir any advertising and keep their shelf prices low. But it is all economic activity. It is all the trading of labor and materials. The rewards are sometimes emotional, having to do with status and self-worth. But these too are economic drivers.

It is important to understand this in order to protect the creative spirit. For if we fail to get published we must understand it is probably because we did not gauge the economics of it; we did not understand that we were in a role of selling our work, and selling our work means tailoring it to the market. Certain segments of that market may be hungry for extremely unusual, idiosyncratic, nearly unintelligible work that seems to come from a primitive or intensely intellectual source; a small number of people hunger for work that is wild and  strange and disjointed; they hunger for surrealism or dadaism or impenetrable intellectual prose; they do constitute a market but it is a small market because they are rare, unusual people. The masses tend to enjoy writing of a more pedestrian sort. I tend to be of the more rare sort who likes extremely strange work but paradoxically I want to write for a large audience so I try to write in forms that are widely accessible.

If we are to nuture and protect our creative selves we must be practical and realize that not everything we produce is going to be met with love and approval; a lot of what we produce will have to be adjusted for a market if it is going to be published. So another purpose of the workshops is to strengthen artistic self-esteem so that we do not fall apart when we realize we have to revise or rethink our work for a particular market, so that we know we are keeping our creative spirits alive and fresh even though we need to go through cycles of revision and critique for the market.

The workshops keep it fun, and enliven our sense of self-worth, and keep it separate from the sometimes slow, grinding and unpleasant tasks necessary to get our work published.

That’s also why I am always trying to learn about literary agents, publishing and markets. I want my work to be read; I want to be a part of the conversation. I don’t just write for myself. Writing helps me stay psychologically healthy but I don’t write for therapy. I write to be a part of the larger world, to connect. So if you are trying to find an agent, or get your work published in small magazines, or make a living as a freelancer, I am interested in hearing from you. This is the world that I know and love. I have mostly made my living by writing, and that world makes sense to me — more sense than the other main repository of writers, which is the educational world. I have mostly done journalism and am coming late to the world of literary book publishing, which does seem to be more closely allied with universities and less with what I consider the more street-level activities of journalism, activism and performance.

Anyway, there are many ways to feed the creative spirit and my workshops are just one way. I hope you will find as many ways as you can to feed this vital part of your self. I am doing my small part to keep the world a creative, vibrant, interesting place for us all. I hope to see you often and to always lend a helping hand to help you find new avenues of expression.
— Cary T.

 

Do you have a project you need to finish? Is it driving you nuts?

FinishedCropWouldn’t you feel great if you finally got it done?

Finishing School is a way to get things done when nothing else has worked.

It doesn’t matter what the thing is. Finishing isn’t about the mechanics of the task. It’s about the process, or method, of finishing. It’s very simple. It is easy to learn.

If you have tried scheduling, will power, time management, getting up earlier, taking off a day, enlisting the help of experts, doing copious research, asking your friends for help, starting over, and a million other things, and this one thing still isn’t done, then try Finishing School. Because obviously those other methods didn’t work.

And don’t give up! Come to Finishing School and let us help you get it done.

This method will work. If it doesn’t, just tell me and I’ll give you your money back. I’ll be glad to give you your money back because I’ll be learning something from you. It’ll be useful research-type information. Nobody has asked for their money back yet but eventually someone will, and when that happens I will congratulate them and thank them, because that will help us improve the method.

But for now, people come to finishing school and they finish whatever it is. And you can too.

What are you putting off? Is it a lifelong dream? Is it a project around the house? Does it involve the prospect of an unpleasant conversation? The risk of rejection or disappointment?

Whatever. The main thing is that it’s something that needs to be done and it’s not done so it’s bugging you. But you’re finally ready to do something about it.

Good for you.

sign up.

Or if you’re not quite sure, email me at cary@carytennis.com and tell me about your situation.

Writing workshops with Cary Tennis

The Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method helps people write. It’s that simple.

•It helps beginners and it helps professionals.
•Plus it’s fun!

How does it work? Well, I’ve been leading AWA workshops for over seven years and what I’ve seen in those seven years is people coming in who may have written a lot in the past and got stuck, or are currently writing but troubled with anxiety or blocks, or people who have never written a lot but always thought they’d like to. And what happens as we write together in a group and then read aloud, commenting only on what we remember and what sticks with us, is that people loosen up and begin to write more fluidly and with ease. That’s what I’ve observed.

How does it do that? Well, I’d suggest you read Writing Alone and With Others, the book by Pat Schneider, who created this method. I read it in 2007 and then took a week-long workshop with Pat Schneider in Berkeley, California, and subsequently became a certified workshop leader. I use her method because it works. It is best experienced rather than explained. Join us for a session and see if it doesn’t open up new creative vistas for you as it has for me and many others.

Sign up for our Writing Workshop and see what it can do for you!